The Judith Project

Never Recorded, Never Performed in North America, Sir Hubert Parry’s 1888 Oratorio JUDITH Debuted in Toronto on May 3, 2015

International researchers resurrected a lost masterpiece from composer of the stirring hymn ‘Jerusalem’

An enthusiastic Toronto audience joined Pax Christi Chorale, orchestra and outstanding soloists at Koerner Hall on Sunday May 3, 2015 for the North American première of Sir Hubert Parry’s dramatic oratorio JUDITH.

This all-but-forgotten Victorian oratorio, celebrating the Apocryphal heroine, JUDITH is a musical treasure composed by Sir Hubert Parry, ranked among the most important English composers.

Known throughout the English-speaking world as the composer of the anthem I Was Glad, Parry’s music has graced coronations and recent royal weddings, and his hymn Jerusalem, an unofficial anthem of England, is an essential element of The Last Night at the Proms.

Parry was the master of large choral and orchestral forces, and JUDITH features spine-tingling choruses and a story that rivals any plot on HBO. The first performance in England left audiences ecstatic, and performers and reviewers calling for more.

So why had this major work by England’s famous composer never been performed in North America?

When Pax Christi Chorale Artistic Director Stephanie Martin embarked on this project in 2013 she quickly ran into problems. The orchestral parts and score, though in the public domain, were not available for rental or purchase, and there is no recording of the work for reference.

But sometimes adversity can be turned into opportunity.

With the help of the eminent Parry scholar Jeremy Dibble from Durham University in the UK, and research support from Canada’s Brock University, a team of York University students embarked on a mammoth task: Produce a new, digital edition of the oratorio, based on Parry’s own hand-written manuscript in the Royal College of Music in London.

The painstaking process of entering each note, articulation and expression mark from Parry’s manuscript into the Sibelius digital notation software, provided an instant reward. The students could hear Parry’s masterful orchestration leap off the page. 

Says Stephanie Martin: "Pax Christi Chorale was determined to resurrect this grand oratorio. The melodies are so memorable and the drama so stirring, JUDITH should make a welcome return to the choral repertoire. This dramatic work will delight both singers and listeners. And the availability of this new score will enable choirs worldwide to perform JUDITH in the future.”

She adds, “While Victorian music in general has unfortunately fallen out of vogue, many treasures have been overlooked. Parry's choral music sets the English language so beautifully. The Victorians were confident, passionate and exciting innovators. They stood at the apex of an age, and Parry's JUDITH expresses raw emotion and wild drama.“

The ancient story of Judith is full of twists and turns. The oratorio begins with King Manasseh about to sacrifice his children to the fiery god Moloch. The Queen tries to comfort them in a moving scene set to the familiar hymn tune Repton (Dear Lord and Father of Mankind). When the heroine Judith intercedes to stop the sacrifice, the crowd turns on her, endangering her life. The sacrifice is halted as the invading Assyrian army approaches. General Holofernes arrives and gives the Israelites three days to surrender. Judith takes matters into her own hands. She steals into General Holofernes’ tent and kills him, saving her people from certain defeat.

The story of Judith has captured the imagination of painters and writers throughout the centuries. She is a female leader in a world of men who have lost their way. Brave, intelligent, with strength of purpose, Judith triumphs over one of the most fearsome warriors of her time, redeems her King and leads her people to wisdom.

Masterfully crafted with vibrant detail, emotion and drama, Parry’s JUDITH was an overwhelming success in Victorian England, performed by some of that era’s greatest musicians. Hans Richter conducted the premiere; Charles Villiers Stanford conducted the London debut, and Elgar played violin in the orchestra under Parry’s own baton in Gloucester.

Pax Christi Chorale is known for presenting dramatic choral masterpieces like JUDITH with passion, conviction and heart. Artistic Director Stephanie Martin’s imaginative programming engages audiences with dramatic story-telling through oratorio and rarely-heard masterworks. Recent performances have included Elgar’s The Kingdom, Britten’s Saint Nicolas, and a semi-staged production of Handel’s oratorio Solomon.

A great ensemble of soloists, all excellent storytellers, includes soprano Shannon Mercer in the role of Judith, baritone Michael York, tenor David Menzies and mezzo-soprano Jillian Yeman, as well as four boy soloists from St. Michael’s Choir School.

More on Judith

Download the complete text of Judith
Read the Toronto Star’s concert review

Fabled beauty beheads enemy general

TORONTO STAR
BY JOE FIORITO, Columnist

A Toronto choir, the Pax Christi Chorale, recently performed the North American premiere of “Judith,” a Victorian oratorio which has not been heard in over 100 years.

I was there.

So was my beloved. She is an alto in the Pax Christi Chorale. And I am not just uxorious, I was lucky enough to have listened as she and her mates sang the North American premiere of the oratorio, “Judith” last week.

Conflict of interest?

Try and stop me.

“Judith”?

Oh, children, long ago the Israelites went astray and began to stuff their children into the flaming mouth of the false god Moloch, after which they were abandoned by their real god, after which they wandered around and were besieged by the Assyrians.

Judith, a brave and pragmatic beauty, snuck across the Assyrian lines, crept into the tent of the enemy general Holofernes, got him drunk and/or had her way with him; when he fell asleep, she cut off his head and saved Israel. Or something like that.

There is no better story.

Here’s a better story:

Pax Christi, when my beloved joined ten or so years ago, was an amateur choir singing an annual Christmas concert, as well as a couple of yearly performances, mostly consisting of the sweet and sacred songs of the Mennonite and the Anglican traditions.

The choir would raise funds for these events by holding hymnathons – you show up with your copy of the hymnbook, put up some money - perhaps as much as five bucks, if you were feeling flush - call your tune, and the choir would sing it.

Times change.

The choir, under the hand of artistic director Stephanie Martin, has grown more ambitious year after year, and the concerts – and the fundraisers - have increased in beauty and complexity.

Ambition without heart is a base and useless thing. Here, I will tell you that the greatest single act of artistic courage I have ever seen occurred when, a few weeks before one of the concerts, Stephanie’s husband Bruce died shockingly too soon; rather than skip the performance and step back in mourning, as she had every right to do, Stephanie took to the podium and conducted the choir in his memory.

No greater love than that.

Back to “Judith”.

It was written by Hubert Parry, a Victorian composer who turned out a handful of mostly successful things in his day, including the unofficial anthem of England, which you know as “Jerusalem”.

“Jerusalem” is a musical setting of the quirky little poem of the same name by William Blake about the rumored visit of Christ to Britain; it has the worst opening lines in all of literature or music: “And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?”

Who cares about those feet?

Let us speak of “Judith.”

It was written in 1888 and was very popular for a time. But times change. Parry fell out of favour. “Judith”, which was never performed in North America, went unheard for more than 100 years.

Unheard, that is, until Stephanie decided to take a run at it. She discovered, right off the bat, that she could not obtain the score. Novello, the publishing company, seems to have thrown it out.

So Martin took aim at Parry’s handwritten manuscript, and a couple of her students entered it, note by painstaking note, into a computer that turned the whole thing into a score complete enough for the choir, soloists and orchestra.

Okay, you know how you go to a concert, ho hum, and you hear a couple of big tunes that you’ve heard 35 times before?

“Judith” is not like that.

It is magnificent. It is fresh. It is so old it is new. And when an amateur choir, with Mennonite roots, sings about the mountains drowning in blood and the bodies being dashed on the ground like clay pots, it is something to behold.

The highlight for me was a single clarion note, uttered by the soprano, just after she beheaded Holofernes. She not only beheaded him, she pinned me and every single person in Koerner Hall to the backs of our padded seats. Made me want run out and feed some bratty kids into the flaming maw of Moloch.

Makes me wonder why it has taken so long for this glory to be performed anew. Makes me ask why the music critics from all the newspapers in North America were not present. And yes, it makes me wish there was a medal to pin on Stephanie Martin’s gown.

Read it online here. 

Great Canadian Hymns Competition

Life changes, society changes, our city changes,
so we need new expressions of how we see the world and our place in it.

The Great Canadian Hymn Competition II drew entries from across the country, from seasoned and new composers in a diverse range of styles.

HIRO KOGURE came to Canada from Japan 10 years ago. An avid choral singer and violinist he has created a beautiful hymn in the style of his favourite composer, Mozart. The text is by the English poet Frances Havergal writing in 1874. The Toronto private girls’ school Havergal College is named after her.

Pax Christi Chorale reigns in Elgar’s glorious Kingdom

This afternoon, a packed house at Koerner Hall was treated to a rare and stirring performance of Edward Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom by the Pax Christi Chorale, in honour of its 25th anniversary.

The choir, augmented by its youth division, four soloists and orchestra, did justice to the glories of Elgar’s complex music. He was as much a star of the concert as its interpreters — a fact acknowledged by conductor Stephanie Martin as she held the scarlet leather-bound score aloft during the prolonged and noisy standing ovation.

It’s a shame that we don’t hear great English choral works from the Victorian and Edwardian eras more often, because they contain so much to impress any listener.

Lovers of opera can appreciate the grand scale and sweep of the dramatic arc of a well-turned text and orchestration. People who prefer art song or arias can bask in prolonged solos. Devotees of choral music have plenty of richly texured choruses to savour. And listeners who like music with a larger-than-life, quasi-cinematic scope can get carried away on crescendos of sound.

Elgar’s Kingdom is populated with all of this, as well as powerful message of faith for those inclined to heed its text, carefully chosen by the composer from the Christian New Testament.

Although everyone on stage deserved the ovation, special mention needs to go to the soloists, tenor Keith Klassen, mezzo soprano Krisztina Szabó and visiting British baritone Roderick Williams, whose richly oaked voice and impeccably turned phrasing turned every solo into a golden moment.

Toronto soprano Shannon Mercer bought a compelling luminosity to a prolonged solo in “The sun goeth down,” at the close of the fourth of The Kingdom‘s five parts, or movements.

And then there’s the remarkable work of Pax Christi artistic director Stephanie Martin, who teased out Elgar’s complex leitmotifs with utter clarity as she held an iron command over the hour-and-a-half of music from beginning to end.

Perhaps it helped that she was working with an orchestra approximately half the size of what Elgar had at his disposal at the oratorio’s 1906 premiere. But at no point did the music ever sound as if it we were missing a single timbre or texture.

Here was the full glory of a grand old choral tradition, delivered with great polish and total conviction. Plus we could go home with Elgar melodic motifs swimming around with the warm memories.

More, please.

John Terauds

Pax Christi Chorale in Peak Form

Barrie Examiner
October 25, 2011
By Marilyn Reesor – Special to The Examiner

“Rejoice, resound with joy!”

This bit of text, a portion of Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate, is exquisitely apt, for Hi-Way Pentecostal Church did indeed “resound with joy” in glorious fashion on Saturday evening when Pax Christi Chorale took to the stage at the invitation of Barrie Concerts.

The vastly experienced oratorio choir of 100 voices is celebrating its 25th exciting season after its inception within the Mennonite community in 1987.

A very popular and widely respected chorus, it has since blossomed to embrace singers of many faith traditions and performs under the expert direction of award-winning conductor and composer Stephanie Martin, accompanied by a full chamber orchestra.

Saturday evening’s sold-out concert featured works of Mozart, as well as Antonio Salieri’s rarely heard Mass in D Major, and highlighted four vocal soloists of exceptional calibre: soprano Melanie Conly; mezzo soprano Nina Scott-Stoddart ; tenor Graham Thomson; and baritone Benjamin Covey.

Pax Christi Chorale is described as a group which “shares a love of great choral singing” and does so with “passion, conviction and heart.”

From the deeply fervent Kyrie of the Salieri mass to Mozart’s dramatically intense Regina Coeli, the chorus proved itself to be worthy of such praise.

As voices soared and diminished, seamlessly weaving through intricate contrapuntal passages then rising together in magnificent harmonies, this shared, great love of choral singing encompassed all who were privileged to be present.

Melanie Conly, an established and renowned soprano, delivered a superbly expressive performance of Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate.

Sweet and articulate, her cheerful demeanour belied the fact she was displaying an incredible range of technical vocal skills, particularly during the Alleluia, which moved the audience to a burst of enthusiastic and prolonged applause.

The evening was rounded off by a rousing and confident rendition of the aforementioned Regina Coeli by Mozart, led by assistant conductor Daniel Norman. Also worthy of note is the brilliant and dynamic support of the instrumentalists throughout the program.

Fans of Pax Christi Chorale, both new and old, can find this excellent musical group on the weekend of Dec. 3 and Dec. 4 at Grace Church-on-the-Hill in Toronto.

They will be performing their Christmas concert, which features carols and motets, and will also present a world premiere of a new composition by Stephanie Martin.

Read it online here:
Pax Christi Chorale in Peak Form